A detail from The Wild hunt by Peter Nicolai Arbo
All things can be won or lost on the Battlefield, even a name.
Near Linden, as the sun lay low, the field wore blood. In the sky, kites circled while waiting for the setting of the sun that would begin a night of feasting on the fallen. Men still struggled, damning their souls with curses as they hewed at each other with swords now dull. They slipped on blood soaked grass and struggled over the mounds of corpses.
That morning King Elwood's army met Osgoode's forces on this field. Formations of soldiers had marched here to die in rank dis-array. Cavalry chargers with feather plumes that had stepped so lightly at dawn, now lay bloated, or screamed for death as they struggled in the miring mud.
So equal in skill the generals, and so matched the armies, that the carnage continued through the day. No arrow flight accidentally slew a king. No brilliant pincer movement crushed a flank. Instead, the battle ground on, turning mothers' sons and young girls' lovers into dead meat.
At the northern end of the once beautiful meadow, King Elwood sat upon his horse, attended by a handful of lords, biting his lip as he surveyed the scene. Somewhere on the battlefield his only son was missing. The king had seen his Prince's banner fall under a hail of arrows two hours earlier.
Others watched the battle. Camp followers, who last night had taken men's money for food, drink and pleasure, now waited patiently. Some cried for a downy chinned young lad they slept with last night, but tonight other men would bring them money. Beyond the camp followers, the inhabitants of the area slunk about the edges, waiting for the night and looting. The armies had trampled grain, butchered the hogs, and stolen the chickens. The bloody runoff poisoned the streams and the clamor drove the wild geese away. Tonight the natives would slip over the battlefield with sharp knives to slice off wallets and fingers if they found a ring.
In the midst of death, one young man strolled about as if among spring flowers. He strode about yelling 'For Elwood and Aquilina' hoarsely. If this cry provoked an attack, he handled it with economical dispatch, his sword darting like a serpent's tongue and growing bright red again. If his cry brought back the counter sign, he stepped into the fray, adding his blows to theirs.
However, these skirmishes were only a brief distraction from Edmund's mission, to find the prince. An hour ago he had found the prince's banner. Still, he had no sign of Prince Raymond, no sign to say if he still lived, or had died and was trampled into the mud.
Edmund spotted a canteen on the saddle of a dead horse. Ignoring the bright blue flies that swarmed over the horse's entrails, Edmund dug out the canteen and uncorked it. He took a gulp and then spat it out. Wine. Hadn't one soldier brought water to the battle? What he wouldn't give for a drink of cool well water, or a beer?
The din of battle died away. Exhausted men stood back, still wary, resting until the slaughter began again. An unarmed envoy carrying a white flag rode down into the valley from the South. A bugle sounded and his counterpart rode down from the North. Edmund returned to his work, sifting from the living from the dead, and searching for his Prince.
Orphaned when his milkmaid mother had died in childbirth, Edmund had grown up within the castle, neither noble nor base, for whispers said his father stooped to breed the boy. At six he tended the boarhounds; at nine he groomed the war-horses. At twelve the king made him Prince Raymond's squire and decreed he should be trained in the arts of war and peace so he could serve the future king.
Edmund had trained with the prince who was three years his senior. Gone forever were the games of 'fox and hen' with the other common lads; among the nobles he remained a servant. The sword master's had a heavy hand for the squire since he could not punish the prince.
In twelve years Edmund grew first into a stripling, and then a young man. Where Prince Raymond slacked, his squire excelled, until no man could stand against him. In contests he overcame other squires, but, of course, no game let him raise his base hand against a noble lord, not even in mock combat.
That morning, a knight who had lamed his horse, took Edmund’s, as was his right. On foot, Edmund watched Prince Raymond lead the cavalry charge; he watched them thunder across the field and disappear into the dust; he saw the flight of arrows, and then the banner fell.
Where could the prince have gone? Edmund had searched to the North and the South and the West, that only left the East. He hurried from body to body, checking each face for the features he served. Soon the armies would retire and leave the field to looters. If the prince was weak from his wounds, some peasant might slit this throat to silence him before stealing his wallet.
As Edmund stalked the darkening battlefield, the looters flitted around him like ghouls from the underworld. Then Edmund heard a commotion to his right, a hoarse curse, and the sound of armor on armor and the creak of a leather harness. He bounded forward to find a Northern Mercenary, glaring into the twilight, his leg trapped under his dead mount.
"God's blood, have you come to kill me?" the mercenary asked.
"For Elwood and Aquilina," Edmund replied.
"For Elwood's golden coins. The battle's over, so give me a hand. I've been pinned here, dying of thirst, for hours. Hurry, man. I've no wish to die here, killed by scavengers, unable to fight. Cut the saddle girth. Push the broken end of the lance under the front of the horse. Now, heave. That's right. God. A little higher. Uggh." With a frightful oath the mercenary pulled his leg from under the horse, dragging a tangled stirrup with it. Then hopping to his feet, he shook off the stirrup and felt the leg from thigh to ankle. He gingerly tried it, and found it would hold his weight for a moment, although the pain of it made him whistle through his teeth.
"By God's Blood, I owe you, man. As Valtar is my name, if there's a battle on the morrow, I'll stand on your weak side and protect you with my shield. Now let's get out of here and find a tankard of ale."
"You go. I have more to do."
"I must find the king's son."
"The wild lad with the inlayed armor? I rode into this meat grinder with him."
"Where is he?"
"His horse and mine fell to the same flight of arrows. I saw his household guard surround him as the enemy charged. I feigned death, and they passed me by, moving in that direction. Hold on, I'll walk with you, at least I'll limp along if you slow down. God's Blood. I need a drink."
Edmund led the way in the direction that Valtar had pointed, down the slope to the steam that carved its way through the valley. There, the two men found the valiant last stand; the dead ringed the body in the brilliant armor. Edmund approached the boy, but he lay there without movement, no breath, no motion.
"He never had a chance to draw that fancy sword of his. He fell badly when his horse stumbled."
In the distance, they heard a shout of "Treachery."
"Now, that's a stupid thing to shout on a battle field. What do you suppose that's about?"
"I don't know. Help me lift him up."
"It would make more sense to slip him out of that fancy armor. Good money wasted. If you must save the armor (its worth a king's ransom), then wear it, or at least the breast plate. I'll carry the helmet and the geives. I'd hoist the body myself, but with this bad pin, I don't think I could carry him."
Edmund undressed the dead Prince, put on his armor so it wouldn't fall into enemy hands, and then lifted the body on his shoulders. The mercenary walked behind him, his sword ready for any trouble. They trudged north, until the fleeing ragged remains of the army reached them.
"My lord," said a fat peasant who might have been a miller. Seeing the emblem upon the armor, he continued, "Treachery most foul, my Lord. Your father is dead, and the army routed."
"Under the banner of truce they set upon your father and his entourage and slew them. All are dead or scattered," the peasant said, and having realizing what he had said, shouted out at the top of his lungs, "The King is dead; long live King Raymond."
The cry flew over the field, and found an echo here and there. Men came running, shouting "Raymond and Aquilina." Behind him, Edmund heard the mercenary raising the cry with the rest.
As Edmund was about to halt the cry, Valtar stepped close, "Let them cry. Let them gather about us. Otherwise, tomorrow we'll be hunted down like rabbits too far from the burrow. I've seen how men fleeing from defeat are treated. Have them gather, and we'll pull back. Here, put on this bloody helmet, and raise your sword. Hell, knight someone or something."
Edmund gave the prince's body to one footman, and put on the helmet. Then he raised his sword, and shouted. "For Aquilina. Dress your ranks. Stand tall. Today we leave the field to Osgoode, but we leave as an army. Spread out to the left and right. Take up a sword and shield. Take a helmet too. Archers, pick up a hundred arrows."
With his speech finished, Edmund was uncertain about what to do next. Where could they go? They needed a secure place to regroup. Then he remembered a cairn, a few hours to the North. It lay beside the road to the city of Aquilina.
As they marched along the road, men slipped from the hedgerows and the swamps to join them. Peasant levies, men at arms, camp followers, all joined them. When Edmund spotted a lad with a recorder, he demanded a lively tune. The men fell in step and marched to the country air. A handcart turned up and Edmund filled it with men too weak to walk further.
No one challenged his authority. Perhaps it was the bloody sword that seemed part of him, or the engraved armor. Perhaps it was the glare from the Northern Mercenary that limped on his left.
"Have you thought about tomorrow?" Valtar asked, as they slogged along the road, left to themselves for the moment.
"No. I guess tomorrow we'll return to the castle. Once morning comes they'll see my face and know I'm a fraud."
"So, wear the helmet, and lead them."
"I'm not noble."
"Nobility, Hah! Look about you. The well-mounted nobles fled north, intent on spreading the news of the disaster and securing their keeps, hoping to swear loyalty to Osgoode on the morrow and spare their fortunes from his sword. The father's dead, the son is too. Who should you follow?"
"I don't know."
"Think about this, lad. There's no man as noble as one with an army that follows him. Keep them alive tomorrow and they'll follow you to hell. You have a way."
"Why do you care?"
"Lad, if you die, then who'll pay me for fighting? Besides, I like a man who'll walk alone across a battlefield on a quest. I'll follow you and I'll stand on your shield side tomorrow. Do you know anything about fighting a battle?"
"I learned every lesson that they set out for the prince."
"Good, You'll need all of them."
The cairn overshadowed the road with a swamp and a deep forest beyond it. A rocky path led up one side through a draw. The rag-tag band stumbled up the path, and for the most part collapsed into the sleep. Edmund appointed lookouts, put guards on the path, and confiscated the cloaks and blankets for the wounded.
As he prowled the camp, the soldiers watched him. Some said the prince looked older, but battle ages a man. Some said the prince seemed taller, but power makes a man more imposing. Tired beyond human endurance he sat and leaned back against a tree to rest of a moment. Then the rising sun woke him.
The waking camp had no order. The proud army that yesterday had stood upon the battlefield resembled a common mob. During the night more men had joined them, until Edmund now counted a thousand souls, including the wounded, dependent upon him.
Small fires were scattered around the hilltop. At one he noticed a crude spit with what could only be venison roasting. He stepped up to the spit a cut a slice. The men around it held their breath in fear. To slay the king's deer meant death.
"Good," said Edmund, his fingers greasy from the meat. "Well, don't just stand there, eat. What better purpose for the Aquilina's deer than to feed to feed Aquilina's army? Who slew the deer?
“Man, eat, then slip into the woods and kill another. Share the meat and make broth from the bones for the wounded."
Edmund stared southward. No dust rose from marching feet, yet. Valtar came to him, carrying a tankard of weak beer, apologetically, "It's the best we have, my Lord."
"How's your leg?"
"It will do for today."
Edmund told him what to do. Valtar walked through the camp. He selected five gray-haired men, with scars from battles past. Those five, in turn, selected centurions who in turn pulled the sleeping men into rows, and formed groups of five (hands).
"An army is more than a collection of men," repeated Edmund from memory. "I must make these men into an army. I must inspire them."
"Men of Aquilina," he shouted. "Yesterday we left the field of battle defeated. Osgoode won, not with arms but with treachery. He killed the King during a parley. Today, this monster marches on our homes? He will say he wants peace, but can you trust a man offends all the laws of war and chivalry? A dog that bites once will do so again."
"His army will loot your homes and rape your wives and daughters. His lords will put yokes about your necks and make you slaves. He marches on this road, and I shall wait here to stop him. I will be avenged. In the past men called me by a name that others' gave me. Today, I surrender all claims to name and title. Today I will win myself a new name, Victor."
The mercenary raised his sword. "All pledge allegiance to Victor. Victor and Aquilina."
The call reverberated through the army. Men beat on their shields with their sword hilts. The sound swelled until it became the roar of rage of a wounded dragon. Edmund let the sound swell, until it reached its zenith. Then he cut if off with a gesture.
"Captains, to me."
They gathered on a table of rock a little below the crown of the hill. Around them, men turned saplings into crude pikes, sharpened swords, fletched arrows, and cared for the wounded.
"Captains. I intend to win the coming battle, and the ones that follow. Osgoode must travel this road to capture Aquilina. He will want to move as quickly as possible to besiege the city before they can lay in supplies. We create a problem. He must either dig us out, or split his army and besiege both us and the city."
"What if he attempts to destroy us here?"
"Then we slaughter his army. Our arrows fly down to pierce the armor, while his stumble up. He can't bring his horsemen to bear our position. They have to fight their way up that draw, under our arrow fire, into our swords."
"What if they throw a ring around us, and continue on the road to Aquilina?"
"Good. Fighting two small armies is better than one big army. Dismissed."
All morning, as they waited for Osgoode's army, Edmund moved about the army. Hand's learned to work together. Pike men marched under shields held for them. Where possible, each hand was anchored by a veteran. The wounded, those who could stand, formed the reserve.
When Edmund saw the approaching dust, he summoned Valtar. "Do you have the men?"
"Yes. Fifty men of steel, who have enough sense to follow orders, and another twenty for your guard."
"Then take the fifty and slip across the road. Do you see that thicket? You will find a little draw behind it, so small that no one will think it hides you. Stay there until I sound the trumpet three times. Then attack."
"I don't like leaving you here."
"I need a man I can trust. You have a desperate duty. When I sound that trumpet, I expect you to attack an army and route it."
The Mercenary looked at the young warlord. "God's truth, I do believe you mean it. When this is over, I'll want double payment."
"When this is over, if I have the power, I'll make you a duke."
"No, I'll just take the gold. I would rather be wenching in a tavern drink cheap wine than sneaking about a palace watching for poison in the wine, and a stiletto from behind a tapestry. I'm off, until you sound the trumpet."
Osgoode's army marched into view an hour later. Yesterday's stains showed on their colors and more than one soldier wore a bloody rag wrapped about an arm or limb. Still, the men at arms and the archers marched in formation. The knights rode in the van, attended by their squires, most of whom now walked. Seeing Edmund's force upon the hillside, Osgoode sent his herald forward, under a white flag.
"Hold there, Herald. We remember your treachery on the field at Linden. A hundred archers hold ready to show you the power of the Acquilinian shaft," Edmund said.
"Merciful and kind Osgoode, King of Shem and Aquilina, asks who leads a rabble in rebellion against his rightful power?"
"Tell him that vengeance does. Today I shall be named Victor. Tell him to turn south and quit Aquilina, to pray for forgiveness for his crimes, to abdicate his crown, and to enter a monastery. Should he do all that, then we spare his life. Otherwise, begin."
"Kind and merciful Osgoode offers clemency to any man who leaves this rebellion now. Those that do not, will be tied to trees and left alive to feed the wolves."
"The wolves will be glutted on Osgoode's army. Be gone."
From their vantage point Edmund's army saw the herald ride down to Osgoode to confer. As they waited, Edmund spoke, "Soon they'll be fighting. Afterwards, all ransoms and loot will be shared equally amongst all who stand by me. I will take no larger share than any other man will. Furthermore, I'll give my share to the man who brings me Osgoode's head."
"What about his balls?" one wit asked.
"Not worth the effort of plucking," another replied.
The joke broke the tension and the men relaxed, leaning on their weapons, as they waited. Osgoode didn't keep them waiting long. He divided his forces, taking all the cavalry, half the archers, and one division of men at arms.
Edmund's men stood their ground unmoving, arms at rest. Edmund himself walked among the men, checking gear, patting shoulders, knowing that the battle remained half an hour away, half an hour of waiting that could wear on a man's nerves. Only after the enemy archer's marched forward, came to a stop and started to plant arrows in the ground at their feet, did Edmund return to his vantage point.
"Wake up lads, it's time to be lively," he shouted over their heads.
The archers raised their bows and sent their first flight into the air. As the bowstrings hummed, Edmund ordered, "Shields up." Wounded men standing among his archers lifted shields before the bowmen. Men at arms crouched behind their shields.
"Hold men. Calm. Their spent arrows dot the turf. We'll send them back in a bit, but now we wait."
Next the peasant levy charged up the draw, running for the first hundred yards. After that, their wind was gone, and they trudged. The hill had broken their charge. Where the draw narrowed, it squeezed the ranks together until they stood so close that one man couldn't raise his shield without knocking two others down.
Edmund's archers fired in rows, creating a continuous flight of death that cut though the advancing men like a scythe through ripe grain. The dead bodies paved the draw, as the men at arms forced the rest of the peasants forward, over their comrades' bodies. The shafts slew until the bodies formed a barricade to protect the still living.
Edmund turned his archers towards the valley. Five massed flights in as many seconds sped from the hill to the valley. Unprepared the archers below broke ranks and fell back, leaving many their companions on the ground.
"Now is the time, to strike," recommended one captain. "Look. They are in disarray and fleeing the field."
"No. We wait. I want to see those men at arms' committed."
Osgoode's general regrouped his troops. Quick to learn he split one century of men at arms among his archers to protect them with shields and strengthen their spines. A few minutes later the second assault began.
The first century of men at arms moved forward in the classic testudo or turtle formation, with their shields overlapping like the scales of a dragon. With shoulder's touching they marched in step, so close together than each man planted his foot in the spot that the man before had just left vacant. On an open battlefield a more maneuverable force could defeat it. However, on this hilltop with precipices on three other sides, Edmund had no space to maneuver.
Make the terrain fight for you, the tutor had stressed repeatedly. How could he use the slope?
"Take ten men, and put that fallen tree trunk on the cart. Then, on my command, race it down the slope. When it hits the enemy, fall flat. Archers, aim at the Testudo. Wait for my order."
Ten strong men could barely lift the tree trunk. When they shifted it onto the cart, its axle groaned, but did not snap. It took ten men to line it up and all their strength to start the cart with its load down the slope. Moments later, it out paced the fastest runner. The cart hit a bump, and the front of the trunk bounced up, then dropped. Hitting the ground, the trunk cartwheeled onward until it struck the marching men almost diagonally. Edmund gave the order and the arrows sped after the now rolling tree trunk, cutting down the soldiers that still stood. The shield wall reformed and continued to advance. The enemy soldiers passed through the draw, spread out and stopped.
Edmund looked down the hill. Seeing the first century had captured the draw, Osgoode's general committed the rest of his men at arms to the attack.
"Prince, if we charge them now, we can wipe out that force before us, then hold the gap again. We must strike before they are reinforced."
"No. We don't fight to hold a hill, but to win a battle. Pass the word, Hold your place. Summon the Trumpeter."
"Madness," muttered one captain, under his breath. If Edmund heard the comment, he ignored it. Once the reinforcements passed through the narrow point, then the two armies must fight, in close formation. His only advantage was that the enemy had no space to maneuver in the draw.
"Have the pike men form up into tight units."
The reinforcements started to stream through the narrows.
"Trumpeter. Sound three blasts. Continuous flights of arrows at their archers until I order you to stop. Pikes, Charge. Hands, follow close."
Three hundred men raced down the hill their pikes of long saplings aimed at the enemy before them. They hit the shield wall with a crash that men heard miles away. The enemy archers hid under shields against the rain of death, unwilling to risk their lives to loose an arrow. From his hiding place, Valtar led his band racing across the road to attack the rear.
"Archers, halt," Edmund cried. The last shaft hit the ground as Valtar, and his band struck. In the first second of their attack, their swords slew fifty men. A second later another fifty. One tore Osgoode's general from his horse and cut his throat. The archers turned to face the new foe, but racing warriors passed through them. With each step, each man's sword swung, slicing bows, arms, and heads. Neither armored nor armed for hand to hand battle, the archers broke and fled. The men at arms tried to stand their ground, but they were scattered while the Valtar's horde kept within a pace of each other. When a man stood his ground, one engaged him and two other slipped behind him. A second later those three moved forward again.
Meanwhile the shieldwall had been pushed back, crowding the reinforcements still moving through the draw. The seething mass of fighting men turned into a melee, a beast with an insatiable appetite for blood. Edmund unsheathed his sword.
"Archers stand. Every other man. Follow me. Aquilina and victory!"
They raced down the hill and overran Osgoode's men, now confused, and cut off. Men hewed at each other with sword and axe. The weight of Edmund charge pushed the shieldwall further back so that the reinforcements had no space to advance. Then, looking backward, the reinforcements saw their general down, and their colors captured. Not realizing how small the force behind them was, they ran from the battlefield, throwing their swords and shields away in their haste.
As the reinforcements melted like snow in the rain, the trapped soldiers held their swords' hilt up and cried for mercy. In moments the battle was won.
Edmund dashed about the field looking for men to slay. His sword wore bright scarlet; his shield was barely more than splinters. Everywhere he turned the men shouted "Aquilina and Victor. All hail Prince Victor."
Captains raced to their confused leader and hoisted him on their shoulders. They laughed and shouted with joy. They looted wine from the bodies of their enemies and drank and cried thanks to the gods for the miraculous victory.
"Your orders Prince Victor?" Valtar asked, shoving his way through the throng.
"Form the army on the road. Have every man arm himself. Gather the arrows."
"By God's fingernails, you heard your Prince. Move. Let him be. He must rest and think up new tactics to bring greater victories to us."
Left by themselves, the mercenary looked at the newly crowned prince. "Easy there, lad. I know the blood lust, and you have it on you right now. Easy, clean the blade and let it rest. You fought well. What's better, you fought as though your soldiers' blood was gold."
"I didn't know if they would stick."
"Well, they will now. They'll follow you to hell. You have an army sworn to you. Now, gather them to you. Let the story of the victory spread and tomorrow you'll have twice as many men under your command. My Lord, Today you have become a noble."
A year latter, the self made prince led his victorious army into the capital and accepted the crown, as was his due.
Copyright 2008, 2014 Edward McDermott. A similar story was printed in Flashing Swords in 2008.
Notes: At the Battle of Hastings in 1066, King Harold II is supposed to have died from an arrow in the eye. That battle which had begun at about 9 A.M. continued until dusk. The King's death left his army without a leader, and so the French Normans conquered England.
Did you enjoy that? Would you like to read more fantasy short stories by Edward McDermott?